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Retired Teacher Still Winning Medals at Transplant Games

Dr. Michelle Josephson with patient, Nancy Mackrola, and nurse, Barbara Pashup
Left to right: Michelle Josephson, MD, medical director of Kidney Transplant, and Barbara Pashup, RN, chat with patient Nancy Mackrola as she describes her competition in the Transplant Games, an Olympic-style event for athletes who have received life-saving organ transplants.

While Nancy Mackrola was waiting to meet with her kidney specialist, also known as a nephrologist, she was intrigued by a picture hanging on a wall in the waiting room. It was of a woman with several medals hanging around her neck. The caption explained that the woman won these medals at the National Kidney Foundation’s Transplant Games.

At that appointment in 1991, Mackrola was told that she was in end-stage renal failure and would need a kidney transplant. Mackrola walked out of that appointment in disbelief, but she never forgot the photograph. “That woman’s picture was such an inspiration to me.”

Mackrola called her brother, Dan Dunn, in California to tell him the news. He immediately offered to give her his kidney. “I could never thank my brother enough,” she said. “I was so fortunate to have had a living donor.”

“Twenty years later speaks to the longevity of how well living donor kidneys function.”

Mackrola’s nephrologist, Michelle A. Josephson, MD, professor of medicine and medical director of Kidney Transplant at the University of Chicago, agreed. “Kidneys transplanted from living donors are superior to those transplanted from deceased donors because they last longer, sometimes nearly twice as long,” she said.

Additionally, Mackrola received her kidney transplant before having to go on dialysis. “Today, the wait for a new kidney in the Chicago area is five to six years,” Josephson noted. Most individuals put on a transplant list need dialysis before they get a transplant. Studies show that the less time the patient is on dialysis, the higher the survival rate of the transplanted kidney.

After testing, it was determined that Mackrola and her brother were a match. At that point, Mackrola took sick leave from her teaching position at a Chicago public school. Dunn, who works for the state of California, was able to spend the necessary time in Chicago because his coworkers donated their sick time. In preparation for the transplant, the siblings began a self-imposed workout regimen and diet. Mackrola had quit smoking two years earlier.

Nancy Mackrola

In October 1991, the transplant operation was performed at the University of Chicago Medicine campus by Frank Stuart, MD, a surgeon who has since retired. Mackrola was home in a week and back to normal in a month. But she did take additional time off to recuperate. While Mackrola had been active in the past by playing racquetball, joining a gym and taking occasional exercise classes, she kicked that up a notch, as well. “If I didn’t have the transplant, I probably would have given up on exercise, but I knew that I had to work at it,” she said.

Mackrola remembered the woman’s picture on the wall and started to research the Transplant Games, an Olympic-style event for athletes, ages 2 to 85, who have received life-saving organ transplants. Transplant and donor athletes from all over the country compete for gold, silver and bronze medals in numerous different sports. The U.S. Games are held biennially in various states alternating with the World Games held in countries across the globe.

Less than one year after her transplant, Mackrola qualified for the race walking event (after receiving medical approval from her nephrologist) and won a bronze medal. Since then, Mackrola has competed in a dozen games. In addition to competing across the country, she has race walked in London, Australia, Japan, France, Budapest, and Canada twice. To date, Mackrola has won two bronze, one silver and 10 gold medals. In 1997, she set a world record, beating the women in all age categories. “I felt so fortunate to line up with the other athletes and race; the world record was icing on the cake,” she said.

“My brother said he gave me his fast kidney. That’s the reason why I won all of the races,” she joked.

Mackrola, who is now 63, takes three medications and goes for lab tests three to four times a year. Despite retiring three years ago and moving to Crown Point, Indiana, she comes to Chicago to see Josephson two to three times a year for a check-up.

In 1998, the fair-skinned Mackrola developed skin cancer despite routinely using sunscreen. The immunosuppressive drugs that transplant patients take tend to make patients more prone to develop skin cancer, Josephson explained. Mackrola sees a dermatologist every six weeks. She also was diagnosed with osteoporosis, but through exercise and diet, Mackrola was upgraded to osteopenia, which is a less severe thinning of the bone than osteoporosis. “All of these things have not stopped me from doing anything,” she said.

Mackrola advises individuals requiring a kidney transplant to comply with their physician’s orders and learn about the Transplant Games. “Even if they don’t participate, they will see how successful people can be after a transplant,” she said. “They can see that they’re going to be okay.”

Just as the U.S. Games marked its 20th anniversary this past summer, Mackrola is approaching the 20th anniversary of her kidney transplant.

“Twenty years later speaks to the longevity of how well living donor kidneys function,” said Josephson, who knows of patients who had kidney transplants more than 30 years ago. “It speaks to the rehabilitative potential of patients who get kidney transplants, how they can stay active and participate in games that celebrate their potential. And it speaks to Mackrola and her commitment and hard work by watching her weight and keeping in good shape.”

Mackrola is planning to celebrate her 20th anniversary by competing in the World Games in Sweden. She hopes that her brother will be there to cheer her on.

May 2011

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